If They Wanted Real Tax Reform

The big story in Washington this week is the Senate Republicans scrambling to pass a major tax bill that nobody but their donors and other members of the plutocracy likes. Assuming something like it eventually becomes law, it will give a temporary tax cut to most members of the middle class and raise taxes for others, while giving a permanent tax cut to rich people and corporations. It will also add more than a trillion dollars to the deficit while requiring billions of dollars to be cut from programs like Medicare. (There is a nice summary of the giant con here.)

Republicans and even some journalists are calling it “tax reform”, even though it will make our system of taxation worse than it already is.

Wondering what real reform would look like, I read a book called A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer and More Efficient Tax System. It’s by a journalist named T. R. Reid. After a lot of research and conversations with tax experts around the world, he reached the same conclusion most experts have. The simplest, fairest and most efficient system of taxation is based on the “Broad Base, Low Rate” (BBLR) model.

The BBLR idea is that countries should tax as much as possible while keeping rates as low as possible. So, in the case of income tax, it’s best to tax all kinds of income at the same low rate. That means getting rid of deductions, exemptions and credits, many of which benefit people with the highest incomes, while categorizing things like health insurance benefits from your employer as personal income. That’s the “broad base” part. Once you’ve broadened the base and made more income subject to taxation, you can then lower everyone’s rates (that, obviously, is the “low rate” part).

The BBLR approach has a number of benefits. Filing and auditing tax returns is far simpler. Since rates are low and everyone’s income is treated the same, fewer people are tempted to avoid or evade taxes. Also, decisions about things like buying a house or building a factory tend to be made on the merits, not on the basis of tax considerations.

Reid also thinks the U.S. should institute a Value Added Tax (VAT). It’s a kind of sales tax, but one that is applied at every step of the manufacturing or distribution process, i.e. whenever money changes hands. We are the only rich country in the world that doesn’t have a VAT. Since it’s a tax on consumption, not income or savings, a VAT apparently has beneficial effects on a nation’s economy. It’s also difficult to evade. That’s why everyone else has one.

Another change Reid recommends is to reduce taxes on corporations. The U.S. has a high corporate tax rate, which results in corporations devoting a lot of effort to reducing or even eliminating their taxes. He thinks it would be better if all of the income people receive from corporations, especially dividends and capital gains, were subject to the same tax rate as other income (today, supposedly in order to foster investment, that income is taxed at a lower rate, which again mainly helps the wealthy). In fact, in a very interesting article in The Washington Post earlier this month, Reid advocated eliminating the corporate tax altogether, since it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

What surprised me most about A Fine Mess, however, was that some of the ideas Reid endorses are included in the Republican tax bill. (Seriously, it doesn’t happen very often that there is overlap between “Republican policy” and “good idea”.) For instance, the Republicans have talked about getting rid of the deductions for medical expenses, state and local taxes and interest on mortgages. They would try to offset the disappearance of those deductions by increasing the standard deduction and lowering everyone’s rates. The result would be that more income would be taxed, but at a lower rate (that’s BBLR). Another result, not so beneficial, would be that millions of average taxpayers, for example, those who have major medical expenses or live in states with high taxes or who have big mortgages, would get a tax increase, even if their tax rates were lowered.

Unfortunately, the Republicans want to combine their few good ideas with many bad ones. For example, they want to get rid of the estate tax, which only affects the truly wealthy, and give more favorable treatment to certain kinds of business income (it’s been said that the Republican tax plan could have been written by Trump’s accountant). They also want to reduce taxes on the rich so much that they’ll have to cut social programs like Medicare, while adding more than a trillion dollars to the deficit.

Reid points out that Congress tends to produce a major tax bill every 32 years. The last one was in 1986. Congress worked on it for two years. The bill had bipartisan support and actually deserved being called “tax reform”. This year, the Republicans are trying to pass their bill in a matter of weeks, without hearings and without input from the Democrats. That indicates how screwed up our government is and how far away we are from getting actual reform.